Rush - Peter Morgan interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
PETER Morgan talks about writing the screenplay for Formula One drama Rush and why his meetings with Niki Lauda helped him to gain a greater understanding for the sport.
He also talks about his own career and why he likes to explore certain stories, working with Ron Howard again and why modern F1 no longer offers the high stakes dramas of the Hunt-Lauda or Senna eras. He was speaking at a UK press conference.
Q. More often than not with conversations like this, it starts with how you got involved. As I understand, there would be no Rush without you, and that you wrote a speculative script?
Peter Morgan: Yes that’s true. My agent rang me up and said, would I be interested doing a story about Formula 1 in the 1970s, and I thought, probably not. The call was booked for two days later, so I did a little research, and of course came across this rivalry. Immediately I got interested, because Niki Lauda was from Austria, and I was living in Vienna at the time, and I know Niki. So I thought, this is fantastic, because there’s a way of doing a story that’s both about the place I’m living, and someone like James Hunt, who I understand much more from having grown up here. Then the phone call came, and they said, did I want to write about Jackie Stewart! I said: “Not even Jackie Stewart’s mother wants to see a film about Jackie Stewart!” We parted company, and then I started writing this completely on my own. I went and saw Niki in Ibiza where he lives. He was bored, he was on holiday, and we talked for about four hours. Or, he did. I just love the way he talks. I promise you, that is so like Niki. I said: “Did you like anybody in Formula 1?”; “No!”; “What were they like?”; “Assholes!”
Q. How was the initial approach to the Hunt family? I know Tom Rubython’s book, Shunt, that left them a little bit scarred. Did they push back at all?
Peter Morgan: Yeah, they were very nervous. We made it quite clear that not only had I never read the book, but that we would never engage with Mr Rubython. We never met, we never spoke. We went and met them for dinner, James’ two brothers. Ron Howard, he’s just the most delightful human being, and the most ethical human being. I think they looked in our eyes and saw we weren’t just out to talk about James Hunt in bed, or what he did out of professional racing.
Q. James is very much seen as the playboy of the sport, but I’m hearing some rumour that Niki Lauda tried to date your wife, is this true?
Peter Morgan: Yes. Yeah, but she said no, and we’re all still friends. That was a long, long time ago, before she was my wife. But thanks for that!
Q. Obviously, in a film like this, you’re putting words in the mouths of people who actually exist. But something that specific, where it’s Niki talking about his relationship with James – how much of that is you, and how much is him?
Peter Morgan: That’s a good question, because it’s something you have to do, and it’s something Ron and I confronted with Frost/Nixon as well. Did they actually say this to one another or that to one another. As soon as you’re going off matters of public record, you do have to rely on a writer’s imagination. An audience is very suspicious, and is very finely tuned to this. I’m sure all of you can think of examples of films where you’ve rejected it. Where you feel it doesn’t ring true. Niki had strong and complicated feelings for James, and they were both rivalrous and admirational. He never said that James was the only person he envied. That was something I wrote because having talked to him for so many hours, I think that’s what I felt. I felt there were things about James Hunt’s masculinity that Niki envied. Right from the beginning, I thought the film was interesting, that you should take a person who already had quite – not low self esteem, but he was quite uncertain of his own attractiveness, only to then find himself in a rivalry with a conspicuously beautiful man. And only then to have your face burnt off. Quite apart from the rivalry of the Formula 1, there were other things going on in their rivalry and in their competitiveness.
Q. Presumably he wouldn’t have been slow giving his opinion on having words put in his mouth, or the words that you put in his mouth?
Peter Morgan: The scene that I was most concerned about with him was the scene with his grandfather at the beginning. I really wanted to make sure that before I write a scene of somebody effectively telling his grandson to leave the house and not come back – it’s painful stuff to be rejected by your family. But that was what set the fire of ambition, he had to prove them wrong.
Q. Would Jackie Stewart just have been too boring a subject matter?
Peter Morgan: Let me go back and be a bit more respectful. It’s an instinctive thing. When you make a choice as a writer about what it is you want to write, and what it is you’re going to spend six months thinking about, you have to fall in love, and I just didn’t fall in love with the idea of Jackie Stewart. He is a great champion, but I just didn’t feel there was stuff there that I wanted to write about, or that I could emotionally connect with.
Q. I wondered what the trick is to make something that’s intrinsically about men going round and round in a circle at ridiculous speeds, as humanly interesting as you’ve made it? We really care about these two men…
Peter Morgan: I share your view. Now that we’re in the publicity stage of this film, there are occasions where we should be turning up at Grand Prix, and I find myself making every possible excuse not to turn up at a Grand Prix. I don’t understand it. The battle I felt, you instinctively feel that this is boys and toys, and it doesn’t have the poetic metaphorical grandeur of boxing, where two men are just hitting each other, which seems even more moronic. But somehow, it’s more elemental. I was interested in the yin and the yang of these two guys. I needed to interest myself in order to find – for me, the racing is secondary. Having said that, I did just sneak in for the last forty minutes to watch it, that’s only about the third time I’ve seen the finished film, I still am sort of amazed by how beautifully they filmed it. It’s just astonishing work. It’s a film I’m involved in, but I say it with completely objective admiration, for the cameramen and for what Ron Howard did, and what [producer] Andrew Eaton was able to do on that budget.
If you’ve never been to a Grand Prix, you aren’t prepared for the sound, it literally shakes you as the cars go past. Sitting and watching this when I saw it last week, this is the kind of film you need to see with a good sound system. If you like Formula 1, you’re going to love this, if you don’t like Formula 1, I think you’re still going to love this…
Q. It strikes me that the only person who ever genuinely punctured James Hunt’s machismo was Richard Burton, and he deals with it very very well. Was it a deliberate choice for you not to have the Burton character in there?
Peter Morgan: There was a brief moment where we thought Russell Crowe would help us out, and I started writing some scenes for it. Then Russell Crowe said no, there aren’t enough scenes. Actually, we were then suddenly in danger of it becoming a Richard Burton film. So, then there was a long conversation – I mean, there were some pretty intense scenes between Burton and Hunt. In the end, we felt that once Russell wasn’t doing it, we tried a couple of other people but no one quite felt like they filled his boots. And so we left it. And actually I think it helps, because you just keep focused on Niki and James, Niki and James. Your question reminds me of that whole episode. For weeks, we were just worrying about, would Russell say “yes”. Actually, I don’t miss him at all. So, it’s one of those funny things.
Q. You mention difficult scenes when you were approaching Niki. I think Ron’s done an incredible job with the accident, and he puts you in Niki’s eyes almost, at one stage. Has Niki seen the film, was he open about talking about the accident?
Peter Morgan: I started showing Niki clips, once we were just in the rushes stage. Once we had scenes cut together, and dailies. He very quickly, like I say, how emotional he would get. I had already been reading him scenes, but then he started to see the footage. I never showed him the accident. I showed him the scenes where he met Marlene, his wife. That whole episode, of course, is invented. There wasn’t actually an episode with the car, but I had to compress. He did meet her at a party in that part of the world. He was fine with all that. I showed him the press conference scene, and that man really did ask that question. Once Niki saw the accident, he became extremely emotional. I did a day of press with Niki in Vienna last week, where that question came up again and again and again. I think it’s because he was concentrating so hard on surviving that he, at no point, concentrated on what the impact of his injuries were on those close to him. How difficult people find his disfigurement, even now. You saw a brief picture of Niki at the end. But when Niki takes off his hat, you have to concentrate not to – it’s very graphic, the scarring, and the disfigurement. I think Niki could see from watching this film, how difficult it has been for everybody dealing with his disfigurement. That thing where you try not to stare, but you’re obviously distressed by somebody. How people have been having conversations with him in a near frozen state for 40 years. He was tearful, very tearful when he first saw it. He was really shaken. And he’s tough to shake, as you can tell.
Q. Several of your writings all wonderfully different, but quite often about two protagonists – Blair and the Queen, Frost and Nixon. I’m just wondering what draws you to that kind of genre?
Peter Morgan: I can’t seem to escape it. When I try and do something else, critics are really vicious. So, I’ve been really beaten up every time I’ve stepped out of my little box, which hasn’t made experimentation any easier. On top of that people then send me things. I’m working with Ang Lee at the moment, which is as wonderful as it gets, but it’s another brutal rivalry. I keep trying to spin it a different way, but I do seem to lock into these stories. I just hope – I’m trying not to repeat myself.
Q. I’m curious about the Ang Lee thing, can you say any more about that?
Peter Morgan: No.
Q. Were you ever tempted to change the last race for dramatic effect?
Peter Morgan: The end of the race, that caused us all the sleepless nights, even more than the Richard Burton sage. Sometimes real life can be very helpful, and sometimes it can be very unhelpful. When you’re building to the climax of a movie, you don’t want, in a rivalry between two men, for one of them to stop after round one. It’s a catastrophe. Most of my evenings with Niki had been spent: “Couldn’t you just make my job easier?, I’m building to the climax of this film writing about your rivalry with James.” So, I had to construct a narrative based on – once Niki’s come out of the race, how do you keep an audience involved? How does it still feel climactic, without letting an audience down? They want to feel some sort of cathartic clash. Our first attempt at filming it was unsuccessful. You had the Monza race, and then you had Fuji, which was a bit of a damp squib. Niki pulled out, which was great, people respected him for doing what he did. There was no climax. James was just going round and round in circles until he won. I said: “But Niki, what were you feeling, what were you doing?” James was doing 58 laps in between when Niki stopped and James won, or came third. So we re-shot, those were additional filming scenes. And the very last scene when you see Niki as an old man, when he’s reflecting back, that was done on the day we were doing the re-shoots. Niki came over to watch us film, and I said to Ron: “Film Niki, just film him.” I don’t know if you could see, he looked very emotional at that moment. It was him watching Daniel, the actor, losing the World Championship. He still cares. So, we filmed a whole load of extra scenes to try and punctuate that emotional journey of him being both generous about the fact that if he was going to lose to anyone, he was going to lose to James. And he’s always said that.
Q. You said you weren’t a natural petrolhead to start with, so how did you go about getting into their heads in order to round out the characters? Secondly, what kind of car do you drive?
Peter Morgan: I do now drive a car with a big engine. Which I didn’t before, I didn’t really care. I do now, it’s interesting. I drive an un-ecological Land Rover, which I bought second hand. There’s an OPEC crisis every time I start the engine. To get into the petrolheads, I really talked to Niki. That stuff about him saying: “I have a good arse.” That’s him, he said that. I could never have made that up, it’s far too good. He said: “I have a good arse, I feel the car.” And I was like: “Oh my God, that’s so good.” And I said: “Why?” And Niki talking about engines was really interesting, and he explained oversteer and understeer, and all the stuff you need to understand why. He’s a really riveting human being. when he talks, I’ve noticed this as a writer, he distills things to their essence in an unbelievably riveting way. There’s no such thing as a dull conversation with Niki.
Q. Niki was hugely involved with the technical side of this stuff. Did he ever give you his impression of modern F1, and the innovations, and just how technical the cars are now?
Peter Morgan: Yeah, now he’s very involved in Mercedes. I think he’s pretty open about saying, and it’s something I think the film says, that if you remove the element of potential death, the sport does become less interesting. Or at least the personalities, and the way they behave. If you know you might die tomorrow, you’re going to behave very differently tonight. The racers of today can, with total justification, plan for their grandchildrens pensions. Ever since Ayrton Senna’s death, the safety changes are so successful. If you have a look at Mark Webber’s crash from a couple of years ago, nobody would have got out of the car twenty years ago, and he’s 100% fine. It’s very corporate, these young drivers are younger than ever. They’ve had no life experience, they’re in their early twenties. They’re athletes. It’s great for them and their families they have long life expectancies, and none of us wish anybody ill. But something is missing from the sport, in that it presents as a dangerous sport, but it actually isn’t anymore. At the heart of it, there’s a sort of dishonesty. It promises gladiatorial entertainment, but doesn’t deliver that. So, it’s just started to deliver a technical experience, and it’s become very corporate. If you go to a Formula 1 paddock now, it’s very corporate and clean. You can go into one of these pits, it doesn’t even smell of petrol. It’s very anodyne.
Q. You’ve touched briefly on the fact that there are people in this room who surprisingly don’t like Formula 1, but actually it’s a fairly esoteric sport. Obviously, Senna made quite a bit of money a couple of years ago, but Senna was a documentary that cost peanuts, as it was shot from archive footage. This is, for a British film, a hugely expensive undertaking. How did you persuade people that it was worth the risk?
Peter Morgan: I didn’t, actually. I didn’t have to enter into – thank God, by the way – any of that economic stuff. I don’t know if any of you know, but Paul Greengrass was going to direct this. The fact that Ron Howard directed it is entirely an accident of friendship. He and I are very close friends. I was going to do it with Paul. We got quite far down the road, and Paul couldn’t comfortably, in a way that he wanted to, get it to a budget number that made sense. There is, as any market will tell you, a number that makes sense for people. Where people are willing to take the risk. I believe that Rush was sold for way more than it cost in pre-sales, so there was never an element of financial risk. Senna was made for $1million, you could make this film for $300 million, and it just depends on where it is that you stop, on the sliding scale. We stopped at $40 million. Forty, for this film as it happens, is an extremely economic number. It doesn’t look like a $40 million film, because we made it as an independent film. If we’d have made it with studio money, it would have cost $80 million. So I hope, although it doesn’t feel like a low-budget film, I can assure you it was. This was not a bling experience, making the film. It was pretty rough and ready.
Q. Your screenplays normally are very much dialogue driven. This would not have worked without fantastic action. Was this a new experience for you, to know that they’ve got to get the action right?
Peter Morgan: I agree with you, I don’t think of this as an authored film in anything like that same way. I can’t imagine myself doing much publicity for this film, I sort of think that the real achievements here are from the production. Andrew Eaton, Ron Howard, [cinematographer] Andrew Dod Mantle. Having said that, you have to make the assumption that you may only get ten million to make it. I set myself the task of writing it in such a way, that it would hopefully capture an interest, even if we couldn’t film it in as exciting and as satisfying a way as we did. You almost cut to a little bit of archive footage, and then go back to the characters. So, that might have bored the living shit out of all of us, but I had to write it assuming that we would not be able to shoot it in a very good way. Simply because if, as it were, the tentpoles of the project weren’t sound, dramatically, no amount of fancy shooting would help. I think you enjoy the racing, but I think if the drama isn’t right, you wouldn’t enjoy the racing.
Q. After Nurburgring, Niki Lauda commits one of the bravest, or daftest acts, by getting back into the car. Did he talk to you about whether or not he was scared? Since he’d just gone through a near-death experience I wondered if he admitted to the nightmares that would invariably follow that…
Peter Morgan: Both, actually. We didn’t dramatise it, but Niki had a very bad panic attack as soon as he got into the car and started the engine. It was very very difficult for him. We dramatised that in the race by him immediately losing his lead, and struggling, all of which happened too. He found it very difficult. That was entirely behind his decision to pull out on Fuji, and I think he really only fully fully was ready to race again the following year.
Q. I’m assuming Ron Howard is not a big Formula 1 fan?
Peter Morgan: He is now, actually.
Q. He’s obviously a very experienced and talented director. Did he bring any particular insights that someone with a fresh eye on the subject can?
Peter Morgan: You’d have to ask him, but I would have thought millions. Because he’s so childlike and adorable. He came in and, poor Niki, he asked him about five thousand questions in one evening. Niki was like: “Yes, no, shut up.” They’ve become a very unlikely double act, those two. They’re very much in love with one another, it’s very sweet to watch. Niki really has no time for people, at all actually, but he really has time for Ron. They’re both grafters, Ron’s up at four, sending emails. Niki’s the same. They’re both mad. Ron brought all that energy, and innocence, and enthusiasm. He’s now an accepted figure in the paddock.
Q. Normally Americans like their motorsport to go round in an oval and just keep going for five hundred laps. Having Ron on board, do you think that will help the film’s chances in the States?
Peter Morgan: I don’t think it’ll harm. We were the least attractive film ever in the history of America. You know when they do test screenings, they check. If, for example, you were to do a test screening of The Hangover 2. I would have thought the recruit for that would be one in two. So, every second person that you recruit in a mall would want to come to a free screening. We were one in 12! We said: “Do you want to come to a free Ron Howard movie?”; “What’s it about?”; “Formula 1 racing.”; “Nah.” So, I don’t know if anyone’s going to go. Ron was the biggest element of attraction, I think without Ron we’d have been one in a hundred.